The Fraternity Dilemma

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From Northwestern University and the University of Iowa to Syracuse University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a growing number of students say they believe that fraternity culture can’t be fixed.

In recent weeks, students have been protesting a wave of reported sexual assaults, many of them in fraternity houses. Students say they are tired of what they describe as years of institutional inaction, when colleges have turned a blind eye to the abuse that they say happens in predominantly white fraternities. They’re tired of watching the organizations, as they see it, get away with harming women.

Some of them want to get rid of certain fraternities — or all of them — for good. “Greek life is violence,” said one protesting student’s sign at Northwestern. “Greek life supports rape culture,” said another, at the University of Kansas.

To some, abolishing social fraternities is a no-brainer: They are exclusionary clubs largely founded by the white and the wealthy, governed by archaic traditions, and out of touch with the emphasis on diversity and equity at today’s colleges. The groups repeatedly end up in the news for horrific reasons: hazing, alcohol-related deaths, date rape, racism. And many have resisted calls to reform for decades.

But some experts say that shutting down all fraternities, as maligned as they are, might not reduce the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. It might even make matters worse.

T
here’s no question that sexual assault in fraternities is a problem.

Research on the exact relationship between fraternity membership and sexual aggression is mixed, said Sarah McMahon, an associate professor of social work at Rutgers University at New Brunswick and director of its Center on Violence Against Women and Children.

A small body of research has found that fraternity men are more likely to perpetrate sexual assault than other male students are, though two of those studies were conducted more than a decade ago. McMahon said the Rutgers center’s research had shown that men who intend to join fraternities “already have more rape-supportive attitudes.”

Other studies have shown that fraternities aren’t monolithic, with some chapters more likely to promote sexual aggression than others, McMahon wrote in an email.

Colleges should target any “subcultures” on campus that appear to promote sexual aggression, whether it’s fraternities or other groups, McMahon said. Given the concerns that students have expressed this fall about the harmful culture of certain fraternities, she said, that “warrants a deep and thorough examination of fraternities by college administrators.”

In national surveys, fraternity and sorority members praise their chapters’ sexual-assault-prevention programs, said Stevan J. Veldkamp, executive director of Pennsylvania State University’s Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform, named for a student who died in a 2017 fraternity-hazing incident. One-third of fraternity and sorority members say they “regularly intervene in harmful situations,” Veldkamp wrote in an email.

At the same time, “fraternity and sorority members don’t understand the extent of the problem,” Veldkamp said. According to the center’s 2018-19 survey, less than 1 percent of fraternity members said sexual assault was an issue for their chapter. In sororities, that figure was 12 percent.

“There needs to be a shift to more accountability on not only students, but student organizations like fraternities, some of which have historically created environments that lead to sexual misconduct and violence,” Veldkamp said.

But, he said, “a call to abolish these organizations seems premature.”

Banning all fraternities is unlikely to have the intended effect, said Gentry McCreary, a former director of Greek affairs at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa who now works with fraternities and sororities on risk management.

If students persuade their colleges to abolish the formal Greek-life system, some fraternity members would simply create underground organizations that aren’t subject to institutional oversight, McCreary said. That would make it even harder to prevent sexual misconduct and other criminal behavior.

“My fear, at least on some campuses, is that the way students are going about this will make the problems even worse,” he said, referring to the movement to abolish Greek-letter organizations.

Nikos Frazier, USA Today Network

Students protesting sexual assaults at Purdue’s fraternities were stopped last week by police officers as they sought to enter a meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees.

Jud Horras, president of the North American Interfraternity Conference, said he was frustrated that, in a few cases, fraternities were the targets of protests after doing the right thing: immediately reporting an alleged assault and expelling the fraternity member involved. That could give fraternity members an incentive not to report in the future, said Horras, whose organization is a membership group for predominantly white fraternities.

Horras also stressed that sexual assaults aren’t happening only in fraternities. At Indiana University at Bloomington, for instance, the campus police department investigated 11 rape reports in the first month of the fall semester. Eight occurred in on-campus residence halls, and two occurred in fraternity houses.

Another complicating factor is that fraternity membership is beneficial to some students, at least in certain ways.

National fraternity leaders often stress that most chapters aren’t rife with sexual-assault, racism, or hazing problems, and that students who are part of Greek-letter organizations have better academic outcomes than students who aren’t. Of course, fraternity members are more likely to come from privileged backgrounds that make them generally more successful in college.

But some research supports the fraternity advocates’ claims. A study of 900 fraternity and sorority chapters by Penn State’s Piazza Center found that 80 percent of chapters have no history of disciplinary violations, and that a majority of members have positive experiences in the organizations.

Gary R. Pike, an emeritus professor of higher education at Indiana, prepared a report last year for the North American Interfraternity Conference by analyzing data from more than 200,000 students who had participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Pike found that fraternity and sorority members were significantly more engaged on campus than were nonmembers, reported greater gains in learning, and were more satisfied with their college experience. Engaged students are more likely to persist and graduate, and to remain connected to their institutions as alumni.

Fraternity and sorority members reported having lower grades, he wrote. Research on members’ academic achievement has been mixed, he said, with some studies finding that fraternity and sorority members had higher grades than nonmembers, and other studies finding the opposite.

Still, Pike wrote, the findings call into question the “conventional wisdom” that fraternities and sororities “do little to help their members succeed academically.”

So fraternities aren’t responsible for all sexual assaults, and not all fraternities are bad. Are those good enough reasons to keep them around?

Some of the protesting students would say no. “It’s high time that this frat and that one next door and all of them get either completely banned, or there needs to be consequences for these people, because they’re just getting away with it, and they know they can,” one UMass student told The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the campus newspaper.

James Barber, an associate professor of education at the College of William & Mary and an expert on Greek-letter organizations, said the pros and cons of fraternities present a real dilemma.

“It’s really a challenge to figure out how to move forward and how to bolster the positive outcomes of fraternity and sorority life, while rooting out the negative, dangerous, and violent aspects,” Barber said.

Banning fraternities, however, would be a tall order. At public colleges and universities, McCreary said, the idea is a nonstarter because it would violate students’ constitutional right to freely associate. Private colleges have more leverage to regulate students’ off-campus lives. But even then, closing down all fraternities would be complicated, involving national organizations, alumni boards, and the housing corporations that often own fraternity properties, and the move could be unpopular with some students and donors.

The era of having fraternities and sororities at arm’s length from an institution is over.

McCreary and Barber say the best approach is to focus on reform — and on holding students and chapters accountable when sexual assaults or other crimes occur. “The era of having fraternities and sororities at arm’s length from an institution is over,” Barber said.

Students are understandably frustrated about how prevalent sexual assault continues to be and how many perpetrators aren’t held accountable, said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center: But eradicating sexual violence is much larger than getting rid of fraternities, she said. It’ll require a cultural shift on campuses. And listening to the protesting students is a critical part of changing campus culture, experts told The Chronicle.

“Fraternal organizations and higher-ed institutions alike need to listen to the students,” Barber said. “They’re telling us that they want a safe learning environment. They’re telling us that they want an equitable learning environment. And they’re not seeing it to their satisfaction yet.”

Some students believe that a cultural shift requires abolishing fraternities. At Northwestern, some fraternity members said they had left Greek life largely because they didn’t see a path forward for reform.

In the end, fraternities and sororities will continue to exist only if students want to be part of them.

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